Passing feels like it might be the most appropriate to the format in a year full of exceptionally shot black and white films. Chronicling the story of two black women in the 1920s –one of whom is passing for white, and all the complications that entail, it’s a heartbreaking story elevated by the central performances from Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga.
Told over three separate time periods, the story begins with the pair reconnecting. Not having seen each other in years, they happen upon one another in a restaurant. Irene (Thompson) has spent the day in the city while Clare (Negga) stays at an upscale hotel. Clare, who passes for white, is entirely comfortable in her skin while doing so. She’s married to a rich, white racist and has a daughter with him. Yet, despite his claim to hate people of colour, he also seems to have no idea. Reenie, by contrast, having spent the day passing perhaps inadvertently, feels entirely uncomfortable, yet the pair reconnect.
In these early scenes, we learn who each of them is and that they have each done what they can to survive. But, while Clare may be trapped in an ivory tower, Reenie is nevertheless so as well. After all, they are both women in the 1920s, and Reenie is black in a country that hates her.
The chemistry between Thompson and Negga is palpable at times. There’s a clear implication that they were perhaps more than friends at one point, and despite ending up worlds apart, they both long for the company of the other. In one of the more touching scenes at a dance, Reenie reaches out for Clare’s hand in a moment of emotion, and it’s made clear that these women are deeply connected.
This isn’t a comedy, though, and by the time the third act rolls around, there is trouble afoot, and while I won’t spoil what happens, the established undercurrent between them lends excellent weight to the tragedy that unfolds.
While these two actresses are the stars (and I expect at least a few award nominations between them), the director might be the real star here. Rebecca Hall has an impressive resume as an actor, but it turns out that she has a deft and delicate hand as a director. Her family history likely informed this –her maternal grandfather was a white-passing man who raised his children as white– but while that might be true, her soft touch approach lends itself to the material well.
Passing, based on a book written in the 1920s, feels as timely now as it must have then. America still has only barely begun to unpack its complicated relationship with race, and the way this story unfolds makes it clear that the country hasn’t come as far as it might like us all to believe. Whether you agree or not, Passing is primed to be one of the more important films of the year, and both Thompson and Negga are excellent in it. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking, and you should see it.
Passing has in limited theatrical release and will be released on Netflix today, November 10th 2021.
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